WASHINGTON: NASA has approved the Mars Sample Return (MSR) multi-mission effort to advance to the next stage in preparation for returning the first pristine samples from Mars to Earth.
During this phase, the program will mature critical technologies and make critical design decisions, as well as evaluate industry partnerships, NASA said Friday.
The first attempt at this campaign is underway as NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, launched in July, will land on the red planet on February 18, 2021.
The car-sized rover will look for signs of ancient microbial life.
Using a core drill at the end of its robotic arm, Perseverance has the ability to collect samples of Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) and seal them tightly in collection tubes.
Perseverance can deposit these samples at designated locations on the Martian surface or store them internally.
In the later stages of the MSR campaign, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will provide the respective components for a Sample Retrieval Lander mission and an Earth Return Orbiter mission, with launches planned in the second half of this decade.
The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and a Mars Ascent Vehicle to the surface of Mars.
The rover will retrieve the samples and transport them to the lander.
The Perseverance rover also provides a potential capability for delivering collection tubes to the lander.
A robotic arm on the lander will transfer the samples to a container built into the nose of the Mars Ascent Vehicle.
Once sealed, the system will prepare for the first launch from another planet.
In the orbit of Mars, the Earth Return Orbiter will meet and capture the sealed sample container, then place the samples in an additional highly reliable containment capsule for return to Earth in the early 1930s.
“Returning samples of Mars to Earth has been a goal of planetary scientists since the early days of the space age, and the successful completion of this key decision point MSR is an important next step in making this goal a reality,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for Science at NASA’s Washington headquarters, said in a statement.
Bringing the samples back to Earth will allow scientists around the world to examine the samples using sophisticated instruments that are too large and too complex to be sent to Mars and will allow future generations to study them using technology not yet available.
Caring for samples on Earth will allow the scientific community to test new theories and models as they are developed, just as Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.
The Mars Sample Return campaign also promotes NASA’s efforts to send humans to the Red Planet, NASA said.